Natural Ecosystems and STEM Ecosystems
What Makes Them Similar?
By Fritz Smith
At SciTech Institute we use the term “ecosystem” a lot, but what is an ecosystem and why is it used in the STEM education world so often? This article will explain some key features of a natural ecosystem and compare them to the STEM ecosystem. In short, we like the term ecosystem because it best captures the intentions of what a thriving STEM community looks like. Plus, the word was originally coined by an ecologist, a scientist!
The ecological system, an “ecosystem,” is a fundamental feature of the natural world. Ecosystems cover all of the Earth, from the North Pole to Antarctica. Everything that lives and breathes is a part of their local ecosystem. The environment shapes the landscape of each ecosystem, features such as rainfall and temperature determine how much plant life is in a region. Examples of distinct ecosystems are considered “biomes” such as tropical rainforests, deserts, savannahs, caves, and coral reefs!
The STEM ecosystem is a human community that recognizes the value of science, technology, engineering, and mathematical (STEM) literacy and knowledge. However, the STEM ecosystem revolves around education. Everyone and everything active in the STEM ecosystem play a role in promoting STEM education for youth, young professionals, and lifelong learners.
Another facet of the community is connecting students to educational and professional opportunities. The STEM ecosystem varies in size from the local community level, to the state level, and to the global level! A thriving ecosystem has many active members. Members include students, educators, employers, scientists, manufacturers, software developers, and anyone you could imagine that is involved in STEM.
Key features. Key features of natural ecosystems translate across to STEM ecosystems too. Indeed, biological and STEM ecosystems are not literally the same thing; we will use metaphor to compare the two. For example, rainfall has a tremendous impact on a bio ecosystem, likewise, the amount of STEM opportunities (professional, educational, and extracurricular opportunities) available to students will have a huge impact on the local STEM ecosystem. One major feature of the natural ecosystem and the STEM ecosystem is the number of different organisms and organizations that create the living ecosystem with their activity and collaboration. Other key features include the flow of energy within an ecosystem, the environment itself (the abiotic components), ecological resistance, and keystone species.
Energy. Energy constantly flows through a natural ecosystem. Energy enters the ecosystem from the Sun which provides all plant life with the power they need to perform photosynthesis. Then the energy flows to another organism when a plant is consumed. Animals use the energy they get from eating to continue their life. Each ecosystem creates a complicated food web of all the organisms’ interactions with each other. All the energy spent by animals moves their body, creates the next generation, and is used for survival; thus, keeping the ecosystem alive (the Moon, for example, does not have a teeming ecosystem because there are no plants and animals active there ).
In a STEM ecosystem the energy comes from all participants, each individual puts their energy into their own education or work. Such as a teacher who puts their energy into their student, or a manufacturer who puts their energy into manufacturing goods. The energy that flows from teacher to student enriches that student who might one day become an educator themself, passing the flow of energy along. In a STEM Ecosystem, energy is not only put into work and study, but also into our collaborative relationships. We put energy into relationships we want to maintain and grow, so too with the work we wish to see make a difference. The energy that goes into the STEM ecosystem not only maintains it, but also grows and empowers it.
The environment. The physical elements of the natural ecosystem, all of non-living things, play the biggest role in shaping the lives of the creatures that live there. Things such as rocks, rivers, the weather, deep ocean pressure, and the minerals in the soil, etc…, are all a part of the environment. Each of these features play a role in how life adapts to live in each environment. Notice the difference between the creatures that live on the African Savannahs compared to the penguins of Antarctica. These differences exist because of the differences of their environment!
The environment of the STEM ecosystem is the knowledge itself. The collective STEM knowledge and expertise of a room, discipline, or laboratory will be indicative of which students and professionals will be there. Take for example an 8th grade classroom and compare that to a computer science lab or a vast copper mining operation. The knowledge of physics, geology, computer coding, biology, or astrophysics will influence the student and professional in such a way as they adapt to those specific fields.
Resistance. Natural ecosystems are always in flux, always adapting and recovering from past disturbances and changes. The quality of an ecosystem to maintain its identity and general function despite disturbances is dubbed its ecological resistance. This is an important lesson for STEM ecosystems to know because there will always be challenges or disturbances that need to be overcome. The resistance of a STEM ecosystem will depend on the relationships and commitments between individuals and organizations; commitments not only to one another but also to the importance of STEM literacy and education.
Keystone Species. Another fun feature of an ecosystem is the keystone species. The organism that has a disproportionately large impact on its ecosystem is considered a keystone species. The beaver is a great example of a keystone species in its natural ecosystem. By damning up rivers the beaver changes the way water flows through a forest, this in turn has an effect on the landscape, the creatures that live in the river, the creatures that live off of fish, and on the trees they chew down to create their habitats.
Likewise, the student is the keystone species of the STEM ecosystem. Students have an incredible effect on the STEM ecosystem for without them schools, nationwide science bowls, community events like SciTech Festival, and future generations of STEM professionals would not exist
The term ecosystem is used because it encompasses the idea that education happens in a vast network of people, energy, and organizations. It takes many different organizations working together, in a complex world like a natural ecosystem, to achieve a mutually beneficial goal. All ecosystems are greater than the sum of its parts. Meaning that the interactions of all organisms and organizations involved form a network that is teeming with possibility.